How Does an Alcoholic Ruin Your Life?
They say alcoholism is cunning, baffling, and powerful. One could say the same about the alcoholic. If you have an alcoholic in your life, you know this to be true.
This article offers some suggestions—100% my own opinion and based on my personal experience—on how to recognize and deal with an alcoholic. Oh, yes, and regain your sanity, too. Because it's not easy living with someone as cunning, baffling, and powerful as an actively drinking alcoholic. Or any kind of addict, for that matter; same sick behaviors, just a different drug of choice.
It's a Progressive, Fatal Disease
The first thing to know about your alcoholic is that s/he is a sick person. Not a bad or weak person. A sick person. As hard as it is to watch someone self-destruct in front of your eyes, the person is not deliberately drinking him/herself to death. S/he is obeying the compulsion to drink. S/he is actually doing what comes naturally: treating the disease.
You see, to an alcoholic, to drink is to be well. It's their normal state. Not to drink is to be ill. Very ill. Until the "obsession of the mind/allergy of the body" is removed, the alcoholic is going to keep on drinking because he has to. He doesn't want to. He has to.
Until you get clued into this fact, the natural tendency is to revile the alcoholic. Tell the truth. Do you feel pity? Do you feel superior? Do you feel disgust? My guess is "yes."
But if your loved one (or work colleague or friend) had cancer, you wouldn't feel that way at all. Wouldn't you be supportive? Of course you would! Surely the alcoholic in your life deserves the same support.
The "Three Cs" of Codependency
I know, I know. That's a tough thing to accept. But it's true (at least current medical thinking is based on a disease model vs. a mental health model).
Again, if your loved one, colleague or friend had cancer, would you think you had caused it? Would you think that if s/he loved you s/he would stop having cancer? Would you blame him/her for acting sick?
Get over yourself. It's not about you! And you know as well as I do that's simply not true. Think about that. Do you believe you have the power to heal your loved one from a fatal disease? If you do, then you must be God. Are you God?
I thought not. So now that we've established that, let's move on to what you CAN do to help.
As you look helplessly at the alcoholic in your life, remember the Three Cs:
- You did not CAUSE it.
- You cannot CURE it.
- You cannot CONTROL it.
Or let me change the emphasis: YOU did not cause it. YOU cannot cure it. YOU cannot control it. And frankly, neither can the alcoholic!
Control is an Illusion
Of these three, the third one is the hardest to swallow. Sorry. I know how difficult it is. But you really can't control the disease or the alcoholic.
In fact, the more you try, the more you fail. The more you fail, the harder you try. It's the vicious cycle of the codepent (that's the person who 'enables' the alcoholic to keep drinking).
Alcoholics are cunning. When that urge to drink takes command, they will do anything to get their fix. Pouring their booze down the sink may make you feel momentarily better. It may slow your drinker down—a little bit. But trust me, at the very first opportunity s/he will find a way to get a replacement.
Equally ineffective tactics include:
The alcoholic may appear to go along with your wishes. S/he may even be sincere, but more than likely it's just a tactic to get you off their back. In the end, you cannot reason with a disease. Alcoholism listens to no one but itself.
Only you can make you a victim
The road to recovery is paved with martyrs. That's because in order to stay in their disease, alcoholics rely on others. They abdicate responsibility for their own lives.
Why? Because they can!!
Any why is that? Because YOU allow it.
While the alcoholic is chasing their bottle, you are frantically chasing your alcoholic.
You believe you are helping. What else are you supposed to do? You recognize they can't manage their own affairs.
You give them a place to live, pay their bills, lend them money, call them in sick to work (when they're really hung over), be the designated driver, pick up their slack at work, etc., etc., etc.
The more you do for them, the less they have to do. Which is great for them, as it allows them more free time to drink. But it's not so great for you. You rightly end up feeling angry and resentful -- not to mention frustrated, defeated and scared.
Who IS This Person?
And you are absolutely right to be scared. This isn't the sniffles. It's serious shit.
As noted above, alcoholism is a progressive, fatal disease. That means that it gets worse over time. It accelerates at different rates in different people. But in the end, it wants its victims dead. If left untreated, it will result in death.
If you've known or lived with an alcoholic for a long time you've probably noticed the changes that occur. In the earliest stage it's difficult to distinguish an alcoholic from other hard partiers/heavy drinkers (although there are clues).
As the disease takes hold, the person starts acting more and more strange. Since you are not an alcoholic, this behavior will seem incredibly bizarre to you. You're right. The behavior truly is bizarre.
The person you once knew becomes seduced by the siren song of alcohol, which inevitably leads them over the rocks (not ice cubes—figurative but craggy, sharps, lethal rocks).
But you don't have to free-fall with them. If you recognize the signs in time, you can get help for yourself, and (fingers crossed) for your alcoholic, too.
How to Identify Alcoholic Behaviors: Some Basics
Here are some behaviors you might observe with an alcoholic:
- Hiding bottles.
- Drinking, vomiting, then drinking more.
- Drinking in the middle of the night (I'm not talking about partying -- I mean waking up at 2 a.m. to take a belt).
- Shaking when deprived of alcohol.
- Having seizures caused by alcohol withdrawal.
- Being unable/unwilling to eat food, preferring to drink instead.
- Not remembering where they were, who they were with or what they did. This is called a "blackout" and is very, very common among alcoholics.
- Lying about the amount they are consuming.
- Lying about who they were with (alcoholics find their equilibrium with others who drink like they do).
- Promising to cut down or quit, but being unable to.
How to Identify Alcoholic Behaviors: More Subtle Clues
And here are some behavioral clues that the person you're dealing with is suffering from the disease of alcoholism. Bear in mind that the vast majority of alcoholics are "functioning" (meaning they can still hold it together on the surface) they are still addicted to alcohol.
- Socially erratic. Blows off dates, family gatherings, and other social events with no warning or explanation.
- Decreasing job performance. As judgment becomes cloudy, it becomes more difficult to focus.
- Chronic absences and tardies. Mornings are not the alcoholic's favorite time of day!
- Poor decisions. If you find yourself saying, "What was s/he thinking???" the answer is probably: "S/he wasn't. S/he was drinking!"
- Initial high tolerance for alcohol (the one who can drink everyone else under the table) shifts to a low tolerance. By the end of their drinking careers many alcoholics report they were never sure if they were going to be able to drink all night and not get a buzz or get totally trashed on one drink.
- Car crashes.
- Broken bones and/or unexplained bruises and boo-boos.
- Frequent changes of job, residence and/or relationships.
- Financial problems (theirs) and/or missing money (yours).
- Irritability. Alcoholics are very, very protective of their drug of choice and their "private business."
So What Can You Do?
I believe the smartest thing anyone in your position can do is to learn as much as you can about alcoholism.
Get yourself a copy of The Big Book. It's a blue book with the words "Alcoholics Anonymous" on the cover. It's like the Bible of AA.
Attend "open" meetings of AA. Listen to how members describe their drinking days and their lives in recovery.
If you can, bring your alcoholic with you. But don't be too upset or discouraged if s/he refuses to go. You will likely be able to find someone willing to come and talk with (not to) your alcoholic and plant the seed of recovery.
Practice "tough love" with your alcoholic. Remember, s/he will continue to drink until something changes to force the issues. As long as you are taking care of their needs, where's the incentive?
If your alcoholic is particularly stubborn, you may have no choice but to walk away from your relationship. Sad as that sounds, it may be the best thing you can do. It shows you're serious and you're not going to let the alcoholic rule your life anymore.
And Last But Not Least...
Since the average person is pretty much clueless about alcoholism there's still a lot of misinformation, guilt, and shame involved. Even if you now understand what you're up against, it doesn't mean your parents, neighbors, boss or friends do. It's quite common for the "co" (codependent) in the relationship to isolate. That's only natural, given the amount of energy you need to expend chasing your alcoholic as s/he chases their bottle!
But you don't have to endure the insanity alone. Just as the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is here to help alcoholics become (and remain) sober, there is a parallel program for those affected by another person's drinking. That program is Al-Anon/Alateen.
Founded by the wife of one of the founding fathers of AA, this program is a godsend for anyone with a drinker in their life. Your alcoholic may never get sober. But you deserve some peace in your life.
God bless you. I wish you serenity.
Does this sound like you?
Have you dealt with an alcoholic close to you?
- 14% Yes. Parent.
- 0% Yes. Grandparent.
- 11% Yes. Sibling.
- 56% Yes. Spouse/SO.
- 5% Yes. Child.
- 3% Yes. Other family member.
- 1% Yes. Boss or coworker.
- 8% Yes. Friend.
- 2% Yes. Other (I'm out of ideas here!)
- 1% No.